A handful of restaurateurs gathered Tuesday at Halyards Restaurant on St. Simons Island to tell the man who represents them in Congress that they need help.
Joined by Rep. Buddy Carter, R-1, restaurant owners said they are looking at a dwindling, talented labor pool and becoming increasingly dependent on immigrants during a roundtable discussion supported by the Georgia Restaurant Association. They also said they’re feeling the pinch of the Affordable Care Act and are concerned about efforts to raise the minimum wage, saying they can’t afford it.
Led by Karen Bremer, executive director of the Georgia Restaurant Association, the group identified the issues as just some of the service industry’s greatest hurdles and concerns for the future. Many of those at the table had begun their careers in the industry like attendee Jason Hyde, a current owner of Brogen’s North, who started at age 15 and worked his way up the ranks until he became an owner just three years ago.
The service industry is the second largest private sector employer in the state, Bremer said, and the state ranks second in the nation in terms of growth in the industry.
“The importance of the minimum wage and that entry level position (to the service industry), it’s huge. If it were to go up, it would certainly have an effect on us to the point we might have to close our doors,” Hyde told Carter.
A minimum wage increase isn’t the biggest struggle at the moment for area service industry locations. It’s a lack of willing and talented employees, especially those willing to fill entry-level positions like dishwashers, said Dave Snyder, owner of Halyards and Tramici.
Despite a culinary program on the rise at College of Coastal Georgia, trying to find hard-working, younger employees willing to put in the effort it takes to rise in the business isn’t that easy to find, Carter was told. It’s an industry that is heavily dependent upon immigrants, which can be a problem for potential employers.
“Nineteen out of 20 interviews go well, but they won’t make it through E-Verify,” Snyder said of the online Employment Eligibility Verification system required by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and Social Security. The process verifies whether the applicant is an American citizen or what the applicant’s status is as an immigrant to this country.
“We need immigrants,” Snyder said. “We need them in this industry. They’re hungrier than a lot of people that I see, those that feel they’re just entitled to whatever.”
Allen Lancaster, food and beverage director at the King & Prince Resort, pointed to what he called something of a “purge” of illegal immigrants in the area by the Immigration and Naturalization Services, better known as INS, prior to his time at the King & Prince. He said many in the service and hospitality industries are trying to recover from it. “We lost half the work force. We’re slowly but surely still trying to figure out how to fill positions,” Lancaster said.
Representatives with Sea Island said in recent years, they’ve reached out to an organization that helps provide interns from other countries, many from Jamaica, to fill the company’s ranks during the busy season. Jonathan Jerulsamy, Sea Island culinary director, said not only are they eager to work but that effort translates into an increase in food and beverage sales.
“I don’t think an immigrant comes to this country expecting a handout. They want to build a life for themselves,” said Bremer, who immigrated to the country with her family from Germany when she was just 10.
As a restaurateur for 35 years prior to her position with the Georgia Restaurant Association, she understands both sides of the issue.
Carter said letters and emails from business owners would certainly help get their message to Washington. He also encouraged the owners to pay attention to the coming presidential election. Immigration is sure to be a hot topic, he said, as it always is.
Restaurant owners also expressed concerns about the Affordable Care Act and how it impacted small business owners and franchisees. Michael Fey, a McDonalds franchise-owner in South Georgia and North Florida, said he was losing tremendous talent to neighboring business owners who could provide more work hours to employees because of those he’d had to reduce to more easily comply with the act.
Snyder said he was planning to take the penalty fines for 2016, as his only other feasible option would be to close one of his restaurants during lunch time and cease the catering arm of his business. Being a small business on the fence of employing around 50 people, the cut-off mark for the ACA, is having an impact on him. Bremer has heard it before.
“In the service industry, our profit margins are only around 4 to 6 percent. When we talk about the Affordable Care Act, we can’t figure out who it’s affordable to,” Bremer said. “As a consumer and citizen you see so much waste in medicine. It could be affordable if those things were managed properly.”
Carter said he couldn’t agree more. He said those looking to see changes should remain supportive.
“Don’t think that we’ve given up on repealing ... the ACA. So much rides on this next presidential election,” Carter said. “At some point, there’ll be more attempts to at least make it palatable.”
Those also in attendance at the discussion were Burger King franchise owner Carol Slade and her husband Ben; executive chef and director of food and beverage for the Jekyll Island Club Hotel Dale Ford; senior food and beverage manager at the Lodge and Retreat at Sea Island Jeremy Bratton, along with the Lodge and Retreat at Sea Island executive chef Daniel Zeal.